When preemies are too fragile for their parents to hold, a new invention may be the next best thing

Mother and newly born baby.

Direct contact between mother and newborn is well-known to be extremely positive for mother and baby. A UB pediatrician wants those benefits for the tiniest, most fragile babies as well. 

Release Date: May 9, 2019

“I was so familiar with the benefits of kangaroo care that I wanted all babies to have the benefit. So it triggered the thought, ‘if we can’t bring baby to the mother, why not bring mother to the baby?' ”
Munmun Rawat, MD, Assistant professor, Department of Pediatrics
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When it comes to parents bonding with newborns, skin-to-skin contact, also known as “kangaroo care,” is always best. In the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) providers now encourage parents to engage in kangaroo care, even with babies weighing less than 2 pounds.

The evidence-based benefits include improving the baby’s ability to breathe, regulating body temperature and promoting weight gain. It also provides long-term advantages to the baby’s cognitive and motor development while benefiting parents and boosting the mother’s ability to lactate.

As a neonatologist, Munmun Rawat, MD, was determined to provide as much kangaroo care to her baby as she could. When her baby was born premature at 28 weeks, and had to spend 62 days in the NICU, she knew that didn’t have to be a barrier.

“My baby was just 1,200 grams (about 2.6 pounds), but as soon as he could be held, I ‘kangarooed’ him throughout the day, holding him on my chest,” said Rawat, an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo. “When I slept at night, my husband held him on his chest. Our son was ‘kangarooed’ for 12 out of 24 hours a day,” she said.

Despite the baby’s premature birth, he is now, at 2 1/2, excelling through all the milestones of healthy toddlerhood.

But it bothered Rawat, a neonatologist at the John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital and a physician with UBMD Pediatrics, that babies that have to undergo surgery, or are deemed too unstable on very high cardio-respiratory support to be held, have to miss out on this integral experience.

According to Rawat, more than four decades of clinical data and research on kangaroo care has provided a solid foundation of evidence that babies derive significant clinical benefits from such physical proximity to their parents.

“I was so familiar with the benefits of kangaroo care that I wanted all babies to have the benefit,” she said. “So it triggered the thought, ‘if we can’t bring baby to the mother, why not bring mother to the baby?’”

Working with students and faculty in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, a joint department between UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Jacobs School, Rawat began developing a concept to replicate kangaroo care for babies who are too fragile to be held.

She decided to develop an incubator mattress that mimics the rhythm of mom and dad’s breathing, and even their voices.

The team created a necklace made of sensors for the parents, which gathers data about their breathing patterns. Those data are programmed into the mattress, which then inflates and deflates in accordance with those breathing data. Another mechanical pump in the mattress replicates the vibration of the parent’s heartbeat. A small, fabric doll that the mother can sleep with gathers her personal odors, which help to familiarize the infant with parents, even without direct bodily contact.

“All of these factors are known to be of benefit to the baby,” said Rawat. “Of course, the best thing is for the parents to be in direct physical contact with their baby. But if that’s not possible, we are hoping that until that can happen, this will be the very next best thing.”

The UB team has developed a prototype and will begin working on a technology disclosure.

In addition to Rawat, the UB research team includes Jack Grossman, Dominick Calavano and Michelle Ford, fourth-year undergraduates in biomedical engineering; and Jason Smythe, a biomedical engineering technician; as well as Anirban Dutta, PhD, assistant professor, and Filip Stefanovic, PhD, teaching assistant professor, both in the Department of Biomedical Engineering; and Andrew Olewnik, PhD, adjunct assistant professor and director of experiential learning in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The work has been funded by the Department of Biomedical Engineering, where faculty and students enthusiastically embraced the project when Rawat approached the department with her proposal.


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